The world is complicated and confusing. What can we do to make it easier to understand?
Attempting to understand the world, in toto, might seem futile. The world is very big. A single person can have, at best, a rough knowledge of all the world’s parts and how they interconnect.
What about a network of people? What if that network were supported by powerful computers and clever software? How much can that network know about the world?
Knowledge of the world is already distributed amongst its billions of human residents. But that knowledge is fragmentary. Various disciplines and organizations serve as aggregators and connectors for different kinds of knowledge. But no single system ties them all together. What if there could be?
Why is knowledge of the world worth having? Why is it valuable? Because it is useful. Knowledge of a system increases the power of one part of that system to change another part, to its benefit.
If an entity, such as a person, holds knowledge about a system, and that knowledge is useful, it follows that the entity must be a part of that system.
This conclusion arises from two facts. First, that to apply knowledge requires a medium through which to make changes to a system. That medium is a material or energy flow. Second, that the results of such changes alter the physical behaviour and flows of the system, redirecting those flows towards the knowledgeable. To have this kind of connection implies being an integral part of the system. To not be a part of the system would require relinquishing those connections.
A contrasting example is the relationship of the sun to the planets. Nothing the Earth can do, at present, can affect the Sun’s behavior. We have knowledge of the sun, but it is not applicable, or directly useful. The Earth does partake in, and live on Earth benefits from, energy and matter flows coming from the sun, but it cannot alter those flows. In that sense, the sun and the Earth are distinct systems, with the Earth being subordinate to the sun.
Humanity is part of the Earth. We are not separate from it. Believing we are separate is a pervasive myth. The myth supports our vanity and self-importance, but it distorts our understanding of the Earth. It allows us to behave in ways that we assume are perfectly safe, but are not. Believing that we are separate from the Earth prevents us from recognizing the risks, and from accepting responsibility for the harm we do to ourselves.
Accepting that we are part of the Earth is difficult. It requires us to have a more sophisticated understanding of our relationship to the planet. It increases our responsibility. People do not like responsibility. We have finite cognitive resources. The more responsibility we have, the more we have to divide up those resources.
Each person can only do so much. One person can account for only so many variables when making decisions. The solution is to spread out the responsibility for different variables. As a society, we can distribute the cognitive load. It does, however, require us to trust that the responsibilities of different people, attending to different systems and variables, are of comparable value and importance.
This leads to a challenge, and opportunity: how do we enhance our collective knowledge to better integrate the fragmentary knowledge of billions of people?
Wikipedia provides an example. An encyclopedia is an aggregate of the knowledge of many people. It is usually assembled by editors, who may or may not be subject matter experts themselves. Wikipedia uses the Internet, and powerful server computers, to aggregate more knowledge into one consistent form than has ever existed before. But while that knowledge is all collected in one place, with a similar format, it is not well integrated.
The contents of Wikipedia are in the form of articles. An article is a textual representation of knowledge, sometimes augmented with other media–photographs, diagrams, charts—or mathematical expressions. Hyperlinks between articles make it easy to traverse the encyclopedia. But articles are rarely written in reference to one another. Sometimes a high-level overview article will reference multiple low-level articles about specifics. Sometimes a summary section from one page will be used inside an overview, allowing some degree of consistency. But generally, articles are self-contained chunks of knowledge.
Wikipedia has many editorial guidelines, covering most aspects of article development. But these are followed inconsistently. Different articles have different degrees of attention, from readers and editors. This is an inevitable consequence of a volunteer project, where people do what they want, taking care of what they think is important. There is no unified or over-arching system, no standardized rational method, for identifying gaps in Wikipedia’s knowledge, or, for that matter, its flaws. It all comes down to how the editors pay attention, which is itself a consequence of the vagaries of social interest and cultural prejudice.
If Wikipedia, or some other collaborative project, did have a rational method for prioritizing knowledge, what would it look like? Is such a thing even possible? Or is it some kind of technocratic idealization? Are there objective ways of measuring what is important? How do people measure what is important to themselves?
What if we asked everyone what was important to them? What if we tracked how their priorities changed over time? Can we predict what we might see, if we could ask every single person on Earth what mattered to them? How well do we understand human nature?
Human psychology is complicated. Maybe just as complicated as the entirety of the non-living Earth. It’s hard to say. Human psychology is an phenomenon of the human nervous system. Billions of brain cells and trillions of connections between them make for a very complex system. Multiplied by billions of people and trillions of social connections, that makes a system of systems.
However, we can put psychology aside for the moment. Or, more specifically, we can anchor human pschology to some facts about human nature that, while also complex, are more constrained and therefor predictable.
The human body is a thermodynamic system, as are all living organisms. It requires a physical environment suited to healthy operation. Our body has material needs that are consistent and predictable. We need atmosphere to breathe. We need clean water, and safe, nutritious food. We need a sanitary place to excrete waste. We need facilities for bathing, and removal of waste water. We need heat for cooking. We need a bed to sleep on. We need shelter to protect us from wildlife, dampness, and extreme temperatures.
It’s not that difficult to summarize our emotional and essential social needs, too, notwithstanding our psychological complexity. We need social stability: family and community, and the cultural predictability that they bring. We need medical care, and the psychological comfort of knowing it is available. We need good leaders, and common principles of social organization, to ensure we can meet everyone’s needs.
Our needs build on top of another. And underlying them all, we need a healthy planet to provide us with clean air and water, ecosystems and species for food, materials for building, and spaces for living and working in.
Various features of the environment actually need to exist in equilibrium. Air needs to be the right mix of gases, not too cold or too hot, too damp or too dry. Water needs to be clean before use, and cleaned after use, so it can be used again. These needs rely on cyclical processes, that in turn rely on numerous environmental systems, which are themselves self-regulating, at least as long as they are not exposed to excessive harm from bad weather, changing climate, or destructive human activities.
These are all objective facts about human beings, their needs, and the needs of the systems they rely on. But we cannot take it for granted that these needs are met.
In the ancient past, humans were few in number, and the world was large. Still, few of our needs were guaranteed. We competed with other animals for territory and food.
Now, we are the unchallenged masters of the Earth. But still, we cannot take for granted that our needs will be met. Quite the contrary. At any point in time, at different places around the world, people’s needs are being met to varying degrees. Some people are doing without, and they are suffering.
But if I were to ask you, where in the world is the most acute shortage of clean air, clean water, or safe food? Or even in your own city or town, who needs help, and who is in danger? Putting aside whether or not you care about the welfare of others, what about your welfare? Does your government understand your needs? Are there other people suffering the same difficulties as you? If there were, wouldn’t you want to know about it? Wouldn’t you want to work together to address your needs, collectively? Or do you think it is better to try to solve your problems on your own?
It may be a cliché, but every problem is also an opportunity. I don’t just mean an opportunity to sell a product or service. I mean, an opportunity to be generous, to contribute to people’s health and happiness, and to form new social connections. Needing help does not mean that a person is useless. It means that they have obstacles that prevent them from participating.
The goal of a successful society should be to enable every person to participate. Every person wants to participate. Every person wants to contribute. It is a fundamental quality of human nature. Anything that prevents that is a problem that needs to be addressed. Whether people have material needs, or emotional needs, or social needs, those needs are getting in the way of their ability to share what they have.
People are not naturally lazy, or cruel, or hateful, or evil. They are selfish to a degree, but that is necessary to achieve a sufficient level of self-sufficiency. People have inherent needs, and an inherent drive to meet those needs. Selfishness increases only in response to a hostile and unsafe environment, where those needs are put at risk. Before a person can be a part of society, they must take care of their essential needs. They must be freed from excessive anxiety that their needs will not be met in the future. People are easily frightened. Fear is a natural response to threat, and the result of fear is self-interested behaviour. If people have their needs met, and have reason to believe that their needs will be met in future, their fear decreases, and their selfishness decreases, too.
So, let’s build a system for keeping track of everyone’s needs. Then, let’s ensure their needs are met. The world will become a better place. If more people can contribute to solving complicated problems, we can solve them faster. But they can only participate if they aren’t weighed down by the effort and stress of meeting their essential needs. So let’s help them, so that they can help us.